Innovate or perish? Not so fast

Kevin Lynch is back lecturing in the Financial Post on what Canada’s researchers need to do to solve the country’s economic woes, and reminiscing about his own days in government, when he was essentially running the country’s S&T agenda before Clement and Goodyear took over that show. The analysis is not original and the rhetoric hasn’t changed.

Lynch was an economist at the Bank of Canada from 1976-1981. He became deputy minister at Finance and Industry under Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien in the 90’s. He eventually became clerk of the Privy Council in Harper’s government until he “retired” in May 2009.

His article repeats and confirms all what was known about his mindset on S&T issues and the role of government. Like everyone else, and as he has always done, Kevin Lynch preaches “the transformative power of innovation”, which he defines as “the ability to create new products, develop new markets, or to produce existing products in new ways”.

This may explain the “innovation” and not “infrastructure” in the naming of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), since Lynch is mostly credited with championing this program. Granted that  the CFI has provided a tremendous boost to certain aspects of Canada’s research infrastructure over the last 10 years, but we see no evidence as to what the program has done for “innovation” as he defines it.

In the article, Lynch repeats his well-known positions. But bear in mind that this “parti-pris” was behind most of Canada’s R&D decision-making of the last decade, and it is still reverberating across the Ottawa bureaucracy. Unfortunately, Lynch’s agenda is based on many wrong assumptions, especially the parts dealing with university research, which is obviously the main target of his article.

Starting with the “innovation thing”, oft-repeated by politicians, bureaucrats and university administrators, yet so misunderstood and misused. It is too bad that he hadn’t seen the reality check in the recent post of Rob Annan.

What about if we’ve got the whole thing wrong”. What about if universities – and for that matter industrial R&D – who can and “do” discoveries and inventions, are not qualified to produce innovation.

It may be time to start realizing that innovation is distinct from invention, that innovation is about process, about finding more efficient ways to do things, about increasing productivity, about creating new markets – sometimes through the commercialization of inventions. That innovation is about the how not about the what, that it is about economics, not knowledge.

Quoting Rob again, “Academic research and innovation work from opposite directions. Research-derived invention comes from asking questions, working towards unpredictable new technologies, new capabilities, with an uncertain outcome. Commercial innovation is based on identifying a need, describing the outcome, and then working towards it.  In other words, research ends at the outcome whereas innovation starts there. If this is the case, then university research is uniquely unqualified to drive innovation.”

It may be time to focus on the very source of the problem, re-evaluate our thought processes, and reconsider past investments and decisions. Can it be that there is a basic misunderstanding of the function of university research, coupled with misleading suggestions and promises made by academics in the last decade, that their R&D could directly deliver the goods for the “knowledge economy”? Was it all music for the ears of decision-makers –such as Kevin Lynch— and custom made by institutions starving for government funds? Thought provoking, but not too far-fetched.

Lynch then calls for high standards for excellence, and against entitlement, when investing in S&T and innovation.

No one can argue with these lofty goals, especially if by entitlement, he really meant the billions of dollars that Ottawa gives to Pratt & Whitney, Bombardier, General Motors and other multinational corporations in the name of supporting Canadian R&D. These are true entitlements, which are well protected and cemented by our fear of losing these Canadian subsidiaries. Another entitlement is the $4 billion dollars that go to the 20,000 Canadian companies through the Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) program, most of which going to very few large corporations.

Unfortunately, it is reported that when Lynch talks about entitlement, he has in mind the Tri-council’s basic research programs, such as NSERC’s discovery grant program, which is seen as an entitlement for the various scientific disciplines. No wonder these programs’ budgets have remained stagnant over the years.

Why are they seen as entitlements? Because Lynch also advocates the targeting of research funding. Echoing Polanyi, why would we want that governments, who have failed so definitively to pick winners in the marketplace for goods, be empowered to pick winners in the far more subtle marketplace for ideas?

Those who are against the basic research programs of the Tri-council, are essentially advocating that we stop trusting smart, productive people with good ideas to continue being smart, productive and full of good ideas. In place of individual creativity of our researchers and evaluation by learned peers, they would like to see all research areas and all approaches determined by bureaucrats in a doomed attempt to direct outcomes.

Lynch is also advocating for the “commercialization of S&T, a more sophisticated venture-capital sector, a more entrepreneurial culture in our universities and research labs, and a culture of innovation in Canadian business”. We couldn’t agree more, but we refuse to confine university researchers to the silos of business managers. We need at least some of our academics to dedicate themselves to fundamental, peer-reviewed research, and not to be branch plants for industry.

Last but not least, Lynch stresses that, “excellence matters. We need competition in the allocation of research funding, with rigorous peer review processes anchored on global benchmarks of success.”

Amen! We hope that this is not about finding the 15% success rate at the latest CIHR competition too high, and that he is addressing the billions of dollars in government funding for R&D that are allocated without any peer-review whatsoever.

Lynch is a gone from government, and in view of the latest creations of NSERC and other new federal programming, Lynch’s doctrine for excellence and rigorous peer review may have gone with him.

This entry was posted in Op-eds, R&D Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Innovate or perish? Not so fast

  1. SpongeBob says:

    Dr Know-it-all Lynch is back. He is the paradigmatic example of economists thinking they can apply simple rules to manage complex systems. It is not because you have a PhD in Economics that it means you understand everything about scientific research. If you work in theoretical physics for instance, and you come up with a wrong model for nucleosynthesis, the consequences are limited. If you have a wrong model for the relation between S&T, economy, and government expenditures, and you have all the freedom to test it because your PhD and loud mouth give you credibility, it is different
    The creation of CFI was certainly a good thing at the time, as it helped starving universities to acquire expensive equipments, and it helped young academics start their labs. The results for universities are excellent: good publication and citation rates. Was all this money spent wisely? Not sure. Is it possible that less money, injected in the granting councils could have given the same results? Maybe. Did it allow for too much political interference? Most probably. Did it foster “innovation”? Apparently not, otherwise we would not we be discussing about all that now.
    He talks about excellence, good. Considering his failure, he should just keep quiet.

  2. Nilima says:

    Kevin Lynch needs to provide us with better data to back up his assertions.

    Let’s take the example of truly expensive, ‘pointless’ basic research – space exploration. Scientists are driven by curiosity about physics, biology and chemistry in microgravity, near-vacuum, etc. And yet this huge scientific endeavour has lead to, apart from a tremendous increase in our knowledge of the physical universe, over 6000 practical, commercially viable and useful technologies. From braces for teenaged teeth to ear thermometers for babies, an invention created by a scientist to do science has found its way into our lives.

    Or the Human Genome project. It is being villified for ‘not living up to its promise’, for being ‘expensive navel-gazing’. It was silly of our community to make promises regarding the commercial applications of this incredible project. It is equally silly to claim there has been no benefit. For the first time in history, an inexpensive, reliable and accurate test for TB may be available… thanks in large part to the immense strides made in sequencing and amplification. This test, when rolled out, will impact millions of lives.

    I defy talking heads like Mr. Lynch to predict, with any accuracy, the long-term impact of much of the research going on in universities today. I therefore fail to see why they should have much say on matters of research policy.

  3. Pingback: Is Canada’s research strategy too politicized? | Piece of Mind

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